Revising for exams
Discover the OCSAR model and read our tips to get the most out of your time revising
You don’t just need to know your subject: you need to understand it. If you understand something, you're more likely to remember it and be able to use it effectively in an exam or assignment.
You'll probably need to combine different types of revision during your degree. How you revise will depend on what kind of assessments you're working towards. Revision techniques like the OCSAR model below will help you tackle questions which need interpretation, discussion and analysis. This tactic is designed to improve your subject understanding and ability to apply what you learn to new contexts, while other revision techniques like repeating information can be great for memorising knowledge like factual information, models and formulae.
Consider which revision techniques are best for the exam you're taking and the type of information you'll need before you start revising, and don't be afraid to adapt revision tactic to work for you.
The OSCAR model
The OSCAR model can help structure your revision for a variety of exams.
- Organisation – study past papers and sort notes appropriately
- Selection – choose which topics to revise and which to leave
- Creativity – use colour, sound and space to aid memory
- Association – make direct and indirect links to aid memory
- Repetition – review content actively to fight forgetting
Sort and order your notes. Study past papers if available. Our brains thrive on being organised, and revising from disorganised notes is frustrating and ineffective.
Tips for organisation:
- Create folders for different themes and sub-divide them into different topics
- Use colour coding for themes and topics to show information that relates to more than one area
- Put a flowchart, diagram, or mind map at the front of your folder
- List anything which also applies to another theme or topic at the front of the folder
Choosing which topics to revise can be stressful. Be selective about how you spend your time and don’t try to revise everything. Make informed choices.
Tips for selecting revision topics:
- listen carefully to what your lecturers say, and what they emphasise
- revisit handbooks, notes and exam guides to identify what might be included in an exam
- use past paper to identify what topics could be included in an exam (where possible)
- use information that applies to more than one theme or topic to revise multiple areas together
- revise a few more topics than you need in a particular paper – for example the “five-for-three” rule says should revise five topics if you need to answer questions on three topics your exam; you can't guarantee that you'll pick the chosen exam topics but you'll have a higher chance of revising them than if you revise 3 sections
Revising creatively helps you understand and remember information because you'll use more of your brain and your extra revision activities will reinforce your revision.
Revise creatively with:
- images – you don't need 'good' photos or diagrams that make sense to other people – you just need to know what it means
- patterns – help your brain compartmentalise and see how, where and why things relate to each other, and use images, colour, lines and arrows to jog your visual memory
- different text sizes, styles and emphasis to highlight significant information
- linking your notes – find a way to relate revision theory to application, for example
- mind maps, spidergrams, pyramid diagrams or flow charts to show relationships in themes and topics, process development, a timeline, or cause-and-effect
- mnemonics – a phrase which represents information by using the letters in a piece on information to make it memorable. For example: the strings on a guitar are EADGBE, or “Everyone Admires Dave’s Gentle Blue Eyes”
- acronyms which reduce a phrase to a word – for example: NATO, “The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation”
- rhythm and music – familiar tunes can help you remember even complex theories and ideas
- space and movement – walk around while reading and thinking or do some exercise before you revise
Association helps our brains create a 'story' to remember things. The previous OSCAR model sections all have techniques that involve association.
Association involves direct or indirect links between themes, topics, ideas, theories, models, your world and other resources. You can associate information with your own experiences or things you observe in others.
- use your space or draw a space for a 'memory palace' by associating a theme with a building, a topic with a room, and information about that topic with items in that room
- associate information with your practical experience by applying the literature you study, your knowledge and your understanding
Review the material actively and repeatedly. One effective form of repetition is to reduce the amount you are writing over time. Reduce pages of notes down to key bullet points or a diagram, flowchart or mindmap – but make sure you keep references to key authors, studies, articles and other material.